NEW YORK, Oct. 30 (JTA) – Are the media biased against Israel? It’s a question many Jews, consumed with recent events in the Middle East, are asking.
While not everyone is quick to assume bias, there is growing concern that the conflict – which some say has become as much a battle for world opinion as a battle on the ground – is giving Israel a raw deal.
Media watchdogs cite a New York Times report last week as the latest evidence that readers are not getting the whole story.
The report from Ramallah said that Israel is pressing the Palestinian leadership to clamp down on its official media, saying it incites crowds to violent confrontation with Israeli security forces.
The report says Israel cited as one “egregious example” a televised sermon that defended this month’s murder of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob in that West Bank city.
“Whether Likud or Labor, Jews are Jews,” the newspaper report quoted Sheik Ahmad Abu Halabaya saying in a live broadcast from a Gaza City mosque the day after the killings.
The Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America quickly lambasted the Times report as a “cover-up.”
What it did not include, said CAMERA, were the other remarks about Jews Halabaya made in that same Oct. 13 broadcast, according to the translation from Arabic by the Middle East Media and Research Institute:
“They are the terrorists. They are the ones who must be butchered and killed, as Allah the almighty said: ‘Fight them; Allah will torture them at your hands, and will humiliate them …’ Have no mercy on the Jews no matter where they are, in any country. Fight them, wherever you are. Wherever you meet them, kill them. Wherever you are, kill those Jews and those Americans who are like them
and those who stand by them …”
Why does a reporter quote this, but not that?
“I can’t read anyone’s heart; I can’t impugn their motives,” said Andrea Levin, CAMERA’s executive director.
“All I can do is read their work. And this was unconscionable, a gross distortion. To say this was an ‘egregious’ example, and then to quote a benign line, is to make the Israeli claims look absurd.”
The impact of such reportage may pale in comparison with the searing images of 12-year-old Mohammad al-Darrah being shot and killed in his father’s arms, which many believe instantly turned the world against Israel.
But it illustrates the uphill struggle Israel faces in presenting its side of the conflict that has engulfed the region for more than a month.
It also shows how, due to the proliferation and saturation of 24-hour news networks and Web sites – facilitated by a conflict occurring mostly in a democratic country with largely unfettered freedom of movement for media – pictures, and to a lesser extent, words, are shaping world opinion more than bullets.
“What we see now is not a war in a traditional sense, but a P.R. war and a war for public opinion,” said Arye Mekel, director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s media center and a member of the government’s new task force for “hasbarah.” Hasbarah is loosely translated from Hebrew to mean explanation, but is more commonly interpreted as propaganda.
Many in the American Jewish community, like Levin, believe the deck is stacked against Israel.
Noting the media’s tendency to pull for the “underdog,” they believe many major media outlets – like CNN and National Public Radio – harbor an anti-Israel bias that unfairly portrays Israel as aggressor, Palestinians as victims.
These critics find no comfort in the fact Arab American groups see it precisely the other way around: that the U.S. media is decidedly anti-Palestinian.
Arab American groups instead praise the work of other media sources, such as the BBC and Britain’s ITN News – which, not so coincidentally, Jewish watchdogs have singled out as particularly anti-Israel in their coverage.
But when it comes to accusations of bias, distinctions need to be drawn, say Jewish observers, between print and electronic media, between news and commentary, even between the media in America and Europe – where anti- Israel bias is perceived to be much stronger.
When weighing these factors, overall the American media can be viewed as doing a “fair” job, both in terms of fairness and performance, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
In a survey of editorials of the nation’s largest circulation dailies from Sept. 30 to Oct. 15, the ADL found “overwhelming support and sympathy for Israel’s position,” including in The New York Times.
As for journalists on the ground, faulty reporting may be guided by “sensationalism, a lack of perspective or ignorance,” said Foxman, but not bias.
“When we accuse CNN or anyone else of bias, we are saying that they are coming together to decide or conspire to slant a story,” said Foxman.
“That’s a very, very serious charge. It’s the opposite charge of Jews controlling the media or Hollywood. And that’s irresponsible,” he said.
“It doesn’t get us anywhere and makes the media our enemy. The media is not our enemy. We need to engage the media.”
Nevertheless, Foxman met with CNN officials last week to express some concerns – why, for example, CNN did not report Halabaya’s fiery sermon.
Foxman said CNN officials “said they take seriously charges of bias or that they have made mistakes, but will not take seriously claims that they are Nazis, or an adjunct to the Palestinian Authority” – as some have accused them of being.
Levin agrees that newspaper opinion pages have generally been more sympathetic to the Israeli side. But she does believe some editors and reporters have pre-conceived opinions about which side is right, and which is wrong.
One example cited by CAMERA was the Sept. 30 Associated Press photo of Tuvia Grossman. Grossman, an American studying in Israel, was seen in the foreground with blood streaked across his face; in the background was a menacing-looking Israeli policeman, his truncheon raised.
The photo caption sent out by AP, and published in many major papers, stated, “An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on the Temple Mount.”
Readers were left to interpret the photo themselves: that the cop had struck a demonstrator. In fact, Grossman and two friends had been beaten by a Palestinian mob, and the officer was trying to protect Grossman.
That Grossman was identified as a Palestinian likely reflected the media’s “ingrained assumption” about Israeli use of excessive force, said Levin.
Then there’s the choice of words. Whether intentional or not, the use of one word over another can subtly shape audience opinion.
Levin and others are closely monitoring and parsing the words that are used, such as descriptions of Palestinians on the streets as “protesters” versus “rioters,” or reports that contrast “rampaging” Jewish settlers with “demonstrating” Palestinian youths.
Or whether the Temple Mount is mentioned only as a Muslim holy site and not as Judaism’s holiest site. Or characterizing Gilo, the recent site of numerous shootouts with the Arab village next door, as a Jerusalem “neighborhood” or “settlement” – a politically more explosive term.
On the Israeli end, its hasbarah task force is steadily trying to make up lost ground.
Ironically, a boon to their efforts was the videotaped footage of the two Israeli soldiers killed in Ramallah.
The video was shot by an Italian crew and reportedly nearly confiscated by Palestinian police. But it was smuggled out and Israeli officials made sure to get it into the hands of the international media. The gruesome footage was a clear blow to Palestinian P.R.
A second Italian journalist later apologized to the Palestinian Authority, fearing it would believe his crew had shot the footage. That reporter was soon withdrawn by his embarrassed Italian network.
In response to charges that Israeli security forces are using excessive force in street confrontations, the Israelis have begun videotaping the clashes from their perspective and reaching out to Western media.
Their efforts were helped by an Oct. 23 USA Today report. The correspondent, traveling inside an Israeli tank, reported seeing Palestinian ambulances unload buckets of rocks and crates of empty bottles – presumably for Molotov cocktails – and that the Israelis held their fire even after the ambulance driver fired twice at the tank.
Still, Israeli hasbarah isn’t without its growing pains.
At a recent news conference attended by dozens of leaders from Diaspora Jewry, Barak first spoke in Hebrew for the benefit of Israeli media. But when he was about to switch to English to address the Diaspora Jews, the foreign television crews were ordered out of the room.
Later, an official involved with Israeli-Diaspora relations was outraged.
“That’s why the Western media hates us, because of such high- handedness. Don’t we realize that it’s not every day that ABC, NBC and CBS come to report what the prime minister has to say?”